Editor Note: Waiting Hours traces the author’s journey as she navigates family dynamics during her father’s last days. It is part of a longer series exploring the life of her father, and the father/daughter relationship.
When we received the news my father was going to die, there were calls to be made, visits to be arranged. In the dim light of the waiting room outside the third floor cardiac unit, my mother wrote out a list of names in careful ballpoint pen. Her white-blond hair fell in wisps across her forehead, and my brother Jake leaned over, hands together, ready to make the necessary calls. She handed off the list to Jake and turned to me.
“I told the nurse she could call the priest as well.”
I was startled. “Why?” We’d never needed a priest in our family, and this seemed like a terrible time to introduce one.
“Well,” my mother wavered. “The nurse insisted. She seemed sweet, and... concerned about you. And....there is this really amazing quilt project.”
We’d been waiting ten days, in and out of the cardiac unit which held my now-dying father, enough time for the staff to know us. Earlier, a young nurse had glowed to me about the priest and the Quilt Project. You pick out a handmade quilt for your loved one, she’d explained, and the quilt is yours to keep. I wished I’d made a quilt for my father, perhaps cutting up the scraps of plaid shirts and his worn out blue jeans. This might have saved years of my mother’s complaining about his refusal to throw out any of his old clothes.
I shrugged. As long as religion stayed in the waiting room and not by the bedside, it might be okay.
After the necessary calls were made, we did what people do when waiting for the inevitable. I sat in the corner pretending to read, taking sips of tea from a hospital paper cup. Jake moved in and out of the lobby for frequent smoke breaks, drank coffee, and texted madly between cigarettes. He had the quality of someone who’d just woken up, dark hair poking out in every direction. A head shorter than either of us, my mother gazed out the window, round green eyes watching the movement in a daze.
It was evening when my mother’s meditation teacher arrived to offer spiritual guidance. Kathleen was tall, with long peppery hair pulled back in a silver clip. Around her neck hung three strands of colored beads, and she walked as if her heels lifted a few inches off the floor with each step.She’d brought a copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
My mother stood up in her oversized coat and embraced Kathleen. She turned towards us. “Kathleen is here. Will you please join me in talking to her?”
I closed my book and eyed Jake, who’d been pacing back and forth. He pulled two additional folding chairs over to the window. I slouched like a reluctant student being called in for class.
So,” began my mother, turning to Kathleen. “I was hoping you could tell us what to expect, what we can do to….”
I counted the colors of beads around Kathleen’s neck, two blue, three red, one yellow, green, and the pattern began again. Kathleen took a deep breath and smiled warmly at us.
“The most important thing,” she breathed, “is to keep the environment calm as a spirit passes onto the next life. If things hold the spirit back they want to stay here in this life. To support him in his passing, you must keep the space as serene as possible.”
My eyes wandered the angular lines of the walls, and traced the patterns of the carpet. Little square-ish designs ran in diagonals all the way past the empty reception desk to the brightly lit elevators. I wondered who had designed this garish carpet. My eyes followed the lines back to my own feet, noting mismatched socks; it had been over a week since I’d had time for laundry.
“When the soul leaves, it leaves through the head. You can support this by focusing your energy there.”
I didn’t dare look at my brother, so afraid we might start to laugh and not be able to stop.
Jake leaned forward, despite himself. “So keeping a calm state…” he inquired. His fingertips pressed together, thin hands emerging from frayed black sweater cuffs. He was rocking forward on the front two legs of the chair. He needed another cigarette.
She turned to him and nodded, as if relieved. “If you need to cry or get upset, it’s helpful if you step away from him. Otherwise, the soul may have a difficult time leaving with such strong emotion.”
I thought about my dad’s view on death. I believe he would have summed it up in two words: “Game Over.” The detailed play-by-play of the soul’s journey onwards made me squeamish. My eyes wandered again towards the elevator, hoping I might find some escape in that direction.
At that moment, the elevator door opened, and it took a few seconds to realize who was in the doorway. In a slow, steady pace, Mark and Tim emerged, my dad’s best bad influence friends. In long-sleeved shirts of contrasting plaid, they looked strangely smaller than I’d ever seen them, hunched over as they walked.
My mother and Jake were both immersed in Kathleen’s words, as the visitors shuffled towards us across the dark waiting room.
“Mom—“ I touched her arm. “Um...” Confusion seemed to hit her as well. Kathleen continued to speak in a calm, even pace, about the path of the soul in transition. As Jake noted our visitors, his knees began to twitch.
I couldn’t stand it any longer, so I jumped up to meet them. “Thanks for coming,” I said. That was the only thing I knew to say. I stood a moment, not sure what was supposed to happen next.
Our little party was the only one in the dark waiting room, so there was no choice but to sit ourselves back down all together and pull up another set of chairs to expand the circle. Kathleen had begun to put on her coat and my mother said clearly and firmly, “Let me see you out.” The two of them took their time gathering Kathleen’s things and began to walk towards the elevator.
Being left with my father’s best bad influence friends was not what I’d intended; I liked the idea even less than being left alone with my mother’s meditation teacher. I panicked for a moment. Then the priest showed up.
Father Jacobs, a tall, black man from Tanzania, had wandered in from the back hallway. Dressed in a suit, he held out his hand to introduce himself cordially in a soft accent.
I’d never had any intention of talking to the priest, however helpful he might be. “Hello,” I said.“You know, my mother is the one who called you, and she just left. You should talk to her.” I realized that this might seem rude, so made one further effort. “Hold on a minute.” At this point I ran—literally ran—towards the elevator where my mother and Kathleen stood, as the door began to close.
“Mom” I hissed, “the preacher is here!” She turned towards me in slow motion. “What am I supposed to tell him?”
She stood like a mountain, calm and fully composed.
“I will be back soon,” she said, and she smiled like some sort of Madonna figure. The elevator door shut.
I returned to the priest. I sat and we waited a few minutes before I remembered the quilts. “I hear you have a quilt project,” I said. He looked puzzled. “The nurse told us. She said it’s really an amazing project.”
His face brightened. “Oh yes, we have volunteers who make beautiful quilts. If you want, you can come and pick one out for your father.”
Jake, in mid-sentence turned around. “Quilt project?” From his tone I knew this wasn’t going to go well.
Father Jacobs continued. “Yes, you may pick one out if you like and lay it over your father. Once he passes, the quilt is yours to keep.”
Jake was adamant, “No—no—he doesn’t need a quilt.” He turned to me “Dad would definitely not want a quilt.” I could see he imagined something white and floral with hearts and little pink or red ribbons. Our father’s buddies sat tightly together, watching us somberly.
“We could at least look at the quilts,” I said. I was curious because… well… mostly because I like quilts.
“No—definitely no. I think the answer, the answer is no on the quilt.”
Father Jacobs cleared his throat. “So, is your father religious? Is he Christian?”
“He is sort of....” I tried to think of how to explain my father’s religious views. “He believed…a lot of different things,” I said. I wished my mother would return, but she was apparently receiving careful instructions from Kathleen on how to support my father’s soul transition. This might take awhile.
“I see,” said the priest, very patient.
By now, Mark had begun to tell stories about my father, stories of crazy fishing days and life-threatening voyages out on the sea in his little boat. Mark’s voice offered a vague comfort, rolling like a lazy river through the cold waiting room.
It seemed like forever before my mother returned. Gracefully, she apologized to the priest, and inquired about the quilt program. He once again explained how it worked. My brother once again intervened. “No—Dad would not want a quilt, ” he said. We fell into silence.
With no consensus on the quilt, and my father being a heathen, the priest couldn’t help us very much. We said goodnight to him, regretting we couldn’t think of any way to make use of his assistance.
By now, the stories Mark had started about fishing, had moved into uncertain and uncomfortable territory that nettled my mother. He’d been my father’s best bad influence friend for thirty years, providing a not-so-charming foil to my father’s good intentions.
“There was this time I got this doll for Christmas, or something. A little wife doll with a sexy negligee with a string you pull, saying, 'can I bring you your slippers,' and, 'Let me fix dinner for you. 'I showed it to your father, and he laughed so hard! He made me promise, ‘You can’t show this to my wife—she’d hate this.’ He did think it was pretty funny."
The night wore on.
“They do have good deals on breakfast here at the hospital—for 1.99 you get eggs, toast, and bacon. When your father was working at the sawmill, we’d sometimes go to the hospital cafeteria in town. We’d meet there for coffee and eggs, the best breakfast deal in town.”
My mother checked her watch, stiffly. “I think we need to be turning in soon,” she said. “It’s been a long week.”
Mark turned to Tim, “So, we should come back for breakfast here. Tomorrow, 9 am?”
“Sure,” said Tim.
By the time my mother and I returned to the little room across the street, we were beyond exhausted.Within minutes we’d flopped onto the beds, with lights out. Lying in the dark, my body was heavy with a sick dense pit of grief in the center. Despite my exhaustion, the evening’s conversations continued to spin around my head in endless circles.
I don’t know how much time passed, or whether I’d actually gone to sleep. I heard a chortle from the bed next to me and sat upright in the darkness. “Mom?”
There was a sudden gasp, and then another burst of sound.
“What? What is it?” I realized I was hearing laughter.
My mother howled, unable to catch her breath as peals of laughter erupted, one after another, like waves. Every time she slowed down to try to speak, her voice would crack again like a dam breaking.
“What’s so funny? Tell me,” I demanded.
“Ohhh…..” She sniffed, wiping her eyes. “At the elevator, this tiny scared voice from behind me saying ‘mom—the preacher’s here!” She exploded again, cracking up in peals like the laughter of a crazy, delighted child. ‘You sounded so scared!”
Within the horror, I began to see a small seed of humor. Seconds later, we were laughing uncontrollably, deep belly laughs that made our sides ache and split. Lying in the dark, we snorted and took long, loud gasps of air. Tears ran from my eyes.
“Ohhh,” she breathed. “Your father would have loved it.” In silence, we both rested our bellies.
Suddenly, “Oh god.”
I was alarmed again. “What?”
There came a long painful sigh. “They are coming back tomorrow.”
“Oh, right—the 1.99 breakfast, 9 am.” A new and different sense of dread spread over me. Would they all be back tomorrow?
“What are we going to do? Maybe they will all come every day, until….” Neither of us would finish the sentence.
For years, decades, Mark and Tim would show up unannounced in the early hours of morning for coffee with my father, ignoring subtle, or even direct hints it was too early for a visit. When after weeks of this, my mother reached a point of exasperation at waking to find three grown men around her kitchen table, the scene had exploded into a shouting match. From that point forward, it was a silent territorial war.
I breathed. “We will tell them no.”
“No, what? How do we do that?”
“We just do.” I could hear her thinking about this, turning the idea over in her head.
Here is where my mother, who hours earlier had been a mountain of strength and composure, began to waver.
She sounded unsure, “We could say, ‘Thanks so much for visiting...’ no.” She paused. “Or should I say, ‘We so appreciate that you came but...’” she trailed off.
“How about, 'this has been a difficult time for the family, and we need some time.’ Or else…”
I was beginning to get weary again.
“Or, how about this: we could say.. how does this sound…”
“That’s all too complicated.” For a fleeting moment, I felt my father’s voice speak from my gut, his words emerge from my lips, firm, decisive, and final. “Just say, ‘Visiting hours are over.’”
Bio: Tamara Lynne is a writer, theatre artist and gardener in Portland, Oregon.